'You Were Never Really Here': Joaquin Phoenix Is Brilliant, but the Film Has a Major Flaw

In Lynne Ramsey’s film, Joaquin Phoenix is brilliant as Joe, a hitman with a conscience, a modern gunslinger whose specialty is rescuing trafficked girls

Joaquin Phoenix and Ekaterina Samsonov in “You Were Never Really Here.”
Alison Cohen Rosa / Amazon Studi

When Joaquin Phoenix wanted to know more about the character he was to play in the film “You Were Never Really Here,” the director, Lynne Ramsay, sent him a sound file of fireworks. “This is what’s going on in his head every day,” she explained to the actor. And that was all he needed to know to get into the part. That anecdote, which appears in a profile of the actor published last February in Esquire, is a distilled expression of the spirit of the movie: it’s a union of forces between director and lead actor, both of whom are on the same wavelength, two kindred souls who found each other. But on the other hand, what kind of advice is that?

It’s been seven years since Ramsay’s last feature was released. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” was widely acclaimed, a candidate for a Golden Globe and a nominee for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. At the same time, Ramsay also came under fire for her stylized depiction of a young mass murderer in a manner many found exploitative. In her new picture, the Scottish director, whose credits also include the critically lauded 2002 drama “Morvern Callar,” once more brings her distinctive style to a fragile situation that involves children and violence. “You Were Never Really Here,” which is based on a novella of the same title by Jonathan Ames (creator of the HBO series “Bored to Death”), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2017 and gained Ramsay and Phoenix best screenplay and best actor prizes.

Phoenix plays Joe, a hitman with a conscience, a modern gunslinger whose specialty is rescuing trafficked girls. His new mission is to release a teenager named Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) from a powerful gang of pedophiles who have connections at the highest levels in New York State. Nina’s father, a state senator who wields plenty of clout himself, urges Joe not only to rescue his daughter but to exact a father’s revenge as well. Joe embarks on a violent pursuit that evokes “Taxi Driver,” though his favorite weapon is now not a firearm but a hammer. 

The story is told largely from Joe’s point of view, and this is where content merges with form in Ramsay’s characteristic fashion. The plot, like the character’s memory, is fragmented. That’s how he experiences the world, and consequently, so do the viewers. Even when things become clear, it’s not in any complete way.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” also played with narrative construction, moving frenetically forward and backward in time. This time, though, Ramsay has gone one step further. Joe suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, one symptom of which is that shards of memories suddenly burst into the forefront of his consciousness, only to vanish just as abruptly. Joe’s perception of reality is kaleidoscopic, and this is also apparently the most authentic and least alienated aspect of the portrayal of the protagonist.

Like the viewers, Joe, too, tries to acquire a feeling of control over his life; to forge for himself an identity and a purpose – both of which he finds in the search for Nina. But the past assaults him through broken bits of memories. In this sense, Joe has no real past, still less a future. In the present, Joe is a fusion of muscles and belly, multiple scars, a filthy beard and a hat that knits the look together.

He’s wracked by memories of some sort of military service in a Muslim country somewhere. There was also service in a federal security agency, and there are older memories as well, with a brutal father figure and a brutalized mother figure. In the present there is only a mother (Judith Roberts), an elderly woman whose consciousness eludes her and whom Joe looks after.

His whole life is a diversified trigger for an equally diversified PTSD. Where is he going and what does he want to do? That’s the intriguing question, and it’s here also that the comparison with “Taxi Driver” arises.

The observation of the world through Joe’s eyes is intended to blur the boundary between reality and imagination. With very little dialogue and no orderly plot, the film places the task of telling Joe’s story largely on the shoulders of Joaquin Phoenix. Ramsay has given him plenty of room to maneuver: Whole scenes are based on his improvisations.

There are few actors capable of delivering the kind of performance Ramsay asks of her star in this film, but Phoenix continues to show that he is one of the finest actors working today. His talent doesn’t prevent the portrayal of the character from stumbling here and there, but most of those problems probably stem from the overflowing script. With his rough childhood, his military and federal service, his tendency to self-laceration and self-stifling, his care for his demented mother and his natural conscience, Joe is almost bursting with all the motivations and reasons that drive him to take action. And, by the same token, it’s hardly surprising that he is frequently shattered and overwrought.

Form and message

In terms of acting quality, the film is a one-man show. Aside from Phoenix, none of the actors have meaningful parts – even Joe’s mother and Nina can barely be said to have supporting roles. But the true stars alongside Phoenix are the cinematographer Thomas Towend, the editor Joe Bini and the creator of the music score, Jonny Greenwood ("There Will Be Blood," Radiohead). Once more, Ramsay, a former stills photographer and a fan of tight frames, presents a gorgeous, impressive visual world. Greenwood adds a disturbing soundtrack, which at times is louder than Phoenix’s voice. Each set, shot and song aims to create beauty as precise and measured as a Swiss clock. When it all comes together to depict an inner storm experienced by one character played by Joaquin Phoenix, as in a particular underwater scene, the effect is ravishing.

Yet this is perhaps also once again the major difficulty in Ramsay’s film: the form does not go hand in hand with the message. In the Esquire article, Phoenix described Ramsay as being something of a soulmate. “Neither of us are very verbal,” he said. “We don’t like to intellectualize about the character. It was all in the doing.” That’s an excellent connection to have between director and star. We don’t need to talk about Joe, as we did need to talk about Kevin, but a paucity of words is unrelated to making a statement. It’s clear that Ramsay came to the project with a passion to tell this particular story, but the novella source would lend itself better to a short film. In some cases, her style feels like compensation for this: The talent exceeds the content.

Fans of Joaquin Phoenix will be amply rewarded with another of his portrayals of an eccentric character. Ramsay is one of those directors whom you can like or not, but it’s impossible to remain indifferent to her. This time she has taken her ability to toggle viewers to a new level, not with a surprise ending but through the path to that ending. She enjoys showing too little where we expect to see more, and too much where we don’t want to see anything. Most of the violence occurs outside the frame, but onscreen brutality isn’t the only way to create a jolting experience, which is what Ramsay is shooting for.